China may take a flexible approach to working hours and suspend schools in the worst cases of air pollution, a government circular said on Wednesday.
Reducing air pollution, particularly the heavy smog which frequently smothers large cities, especially in the north, has become a high priority in China.
When the highest warning is issued a wide variety of measures can come into force, including closure of factories, restrictions on vehicle use, dust controls and a ban on outdoor barbecues, according to the circular from the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Large-scale outdoor activities should cease; kindergartens, primary and middle schools should suspend classes; businesses and institutions should adopt flexible working hours.
The smog has impacted on public health and will only get worse in winter, when coal-fired heating begins belching out large quantities of pollutants. The circular brings rigid management to coal burning, polluting industries and motor vehicles while encouraging use of natural gas.
Demand for energy rises during winter and fossil fuel is used to heat homes and offices. Increased pollution from nonindustrial consumption is the main cause of smog, said Xie Zhenhua, deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).
In October, most eastern and central provinces were smog-bound for 10 to 15 days, and some parts of Shanxi and Henan for 20 days, according to China Meteorological Administration. Weak winds and relatively high humidity contributed to the smog.
Beijing is one of the most heavily-polluted cities in winter, with the density of nitrogen oxide perhaps two to three times higher than summer, said Luo Jianhua, from the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce.
According to an action plan unveiled in September, inhalable particulate matter will be cut by at least 10 percent in major cities nationwide by 2017. In Beijing and environs, PM 2.5, a key indicator of air pollution, should fall by about 25 percent from 2012 levels by 2017.
China has built 668 air quality monitoring stations in 114 cities, and the figure could rise to 884 stations in 161 cities by the end of the year, according to the ministry.
Any interference, tampering or falsification during monitoring will be severely punished, ministry officials said.
Since the beginning of 2013, 74 cities including Beijing, Tianjin and those in neighboring Hebei Province, the Yangtze River delta, the Pearl River delta, have been monitoring and reporting major pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, inhalable particles, ozone, carbon monoxide and fine particles.
A pilot air quality warning system in the cities of Beijing, Tianjin and surrounding areas has been used since Nov. 1. When the air quality index is set to go beyond 500, a level one warning, the highest, will be issued. A level two warning will be triggered when the index is expected to read between 300 and 500 for three days in a row, and a level three warning for readings of 200-300.
In Beijing, cars with odd and even license plates will be allowed on roads on alternating days and schools will close when a level one alert is issued, according to the city's emergency response program.
BATTLE FOR BLUE SKIES
According to Monday's report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, more frequent smoggy weather will hinder air, water and land traffic due to low visibility; affect lung function and the immune system; and lead to more deaths and chronic disease.
The report stressed that the need for a plan to combat air pollution based on specific geographical situations and conditions.
On Sept. 18, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and governments of Beijing, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shandong, Shangxi and Tianjin signed an agreement on pollution in their areas.
The Ministry of Finance announced in October a 5 billion yuan (over 800 million U.S. dollars) reward for air pollution reduction.
Xie with the NDRC said it is important to raise public awareness and change growth and consumption patterns. Those who take irresponsible decisions that lead to severe environmental consequences need to be punished according to the law, he said.